SSIFF 2021 interview: Kyoshi Sugita (Haruhara-san’s Recorder)

Before coming to San Sebastián, Kyoshi Sugita’s latest film Haruhara-san’s Recorder already won the Audience Award and the Grand Prix at this year’s FID Marseille festival. In San Sebastián, Cédric Succivalli sat down with the director and his lead actress, Chika Araki, to discuss the film’s poetic inspiration, Sugita’s process and how suicide influenced that, and how the pandemic upheaved the project. While some things may have gotten lost in translation, the conversation shows a director with a singular approach to filmmaking, which shows in this small gem of a film.

CS: The film is inspired by a tanka, a specific type of Japanese poetry, written by Naoko Higashi. Can you tell a little bit about what fascinates you about this type of poetry, and what it was in this specific poem that triggered you to make this film?

KS: Because of the structure of a tanka (a tanka is exactly 31 syllables long, ed.), it only takes a few seconds of your life. Cinema is like life, except compressed in 90 minutes. So I like to think of tanka as cinema, only even further compressed. There is a similarity between tanka and cinema in that they give you the foundation, the base essentials, and leave out the rest. This tanka specifically speaks about a letter that has just arrived, and I liked that idea and wanted to apply it to a film.

CS: The lead character Sachi is confronted with the terrible loss of her partner through suicide, but nothing of this fateful event is shown on screen. That seems like a deliberate choice, where more conventional filmmakers would perhaps have given at least one scene to it. Why did you decide to leave that out?

KS: There is not a lot of difference between people in my real life and the ones in the film. I have known people who committed suicide, an act I will never understand. So in my film I didn’t really want to have somebody like that, because it would be hard for me to write such a character. So that is why there is nothing of the suicide in the film, just the fact that someone took their own life.

CS: There are several references to objects which to me seemed to sort of captivate and preserve the memory of a person: people taking pictures of Sachi, the flute left behind by the previous tenant. Can you elaborate on the importance for you of including these elements?

KS: The other characters take those pictures because they want Sachi to stay in this world. If they don’t, she might disappear. With regards to the flute: playing the flute is like taking your phone from your pocket, it’s an unconscious act that you perform without thinking. But it may have consequences for other people, and that’s what I wanted to express.

CS: Early last year the production was hit by the COVID pandemic, after you had filmed just one scene. That was supposed to be the closing scene, now it’s the opening one. You were forced to do a rewrite because locations were no longer available. That’s all logistics, but did the pandemic give you a whole new outlook on the story, and did it change a lot?

KS: The film reflects my real life. As I said, I lost people I knew because of suicide, and that was during the pandemic. So the pandemic has certainly changed the story. At first I wanted to shoot in a museum, but that got closed because of the virus. My way of working when it comes to stories and scripts is that I mold them depending on what I encounter day by day, so things that happen in real life can have a direct influence on the film. If I were to rewrite the script today, it would be completely different again. This is why the scene moved: the scene itself was really good, but because of the pandemic I had to move it to the beginning of the film.

CS: The press material says you had to do quite a bit of guerrilla filmmaking because of COVID. What were the hurdles you had to take there, and did that in any way influence the film?

KS: I always work with a core team of three to five people, and it makes no difference between documentaries or fiction filmmaking. I simply respect the time passing in the location.

CS: A question for Chika: you had just recovered from a serious operation, but you still wanted to attend the premiere of Kyoshi’s previous film, Listen to Light. Where does this dedication come from?

CA: Kyoshi and I knew each other from theater, where I was an actress and he filmed the plays. I had an operation indeed on my jaw, and shortly after we met for dinner. We had a long conversation about me, about my background, where I was from, and so on. Or the fact that I used to play basketball! A lot of things. After that conversation, he sent me the script.

KS: I went to her village and spoke with her friend and family. I really wanted to work with her, because she has such a naturalist style, you don’t see the cogs in her head working, which you see with a lot of actors.

CA: Sachi’s character is very different from me. She has only a few conversations during the film, she’s a very introspective character.

KS: This again is my way of working: anything Chika did was okay, whether she improvised or not. Sachi as a character is someone who lets everything sink in, in the sense that she is mostly receiving.

CS: You were assistant director on films of Shinji Aoyama, Nobuhiro Suwa, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, among others. What is the influence that those directors had on your career so far?

KS: You see, for Kurosawa the framing is very important. In my case, I don’t really care about the position of the camera, because for me it is all about the content of the scene, not the framing. Looking at Japanese cinema and directors, I don’t know where I stand. But I do know that I’m different from Kurosawa or Aoyama.